Fleishman Is in Trouble: A Divorce Story
Based on Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel, the Disney+Hotstar series makes viewers think about how women are transformed in male-centric narratives even as it takes them on a non-linear tour of a marriage from beginning to end
If you ask Toby Fleishman why he separated from his wife Rachel after a marriage of 15 years, he will insist the woman he once loved had turned into a selfish, cold-hearted, social-climbing careerist. He may further make a case for her as a negligent and irresponsible mother. Rachel doesn’t help her own case when she drops off her two children at the start of the summer, heads to a yoga retreat, and disappears without a trace — leaving Toby to pick up the pieces.
For over three-fourths of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel Fleishman Is in Trouble and three-fourths of its eight-part TV adaptation, all we hear is Toby’s account. As he juggles work, a child care crisis and dating as a single parent, we are gulled into believing he is the “Fleishman in trouble.” Until a late reverse shot indicates otherwise. Brodesser-Akner flips the script with a perspective shift that has a transformative effect.
As it turns out, the narrative that Toby peddles about Rachel is a clever smokescreen for a critique about how men shape the way women are perceived. If you found yourself asking how a mother can ghost her kids for weeks without any explanation or communication, you are only proving Brodesser-Akner’s point. Why are we so ready to side with Toby? Why don’t we extend Rachel the benefit of the doubt? Why is society so hasty with its judgments when it comes to mothers with career ambitions? At one point, when Rachel wonders if Hilary Clinton can overcome public hatred towards her to win the 2016 presidential elections, it reflects how women can lose control of their narrative. We see this even when the Fleishmans’ preteen daughter Hannah is kicked out of summer camp for texting a suggestive photo of herself, while the boy who shared it with everyone is not disciplined.
Shifting perspectives is a powerful relational tool rooted in empathy. Having worked as a profile writer for GQ and The New York Times, Brodesser-Akner recognises the significance of balancing how she sees a subject with how a subject sees him/herself. The same weight of perspective she brought to stories about Gwyneth Paltrow, Britney Spears, and Justin Bieber’s church, she brings to a story about adults grappling with societal expectations, class anxieties and a declining sense of self as they enter middle age. In transposing the same message to a different medium, Brodesser-Akner gives us a pure — rather than a purist’s — adaptation. The book’s cover image of an inverted Manhattan skyline is recreated in the opening shot: the tilt of the camera feels like a portent for a couple whose world turns upside down. The flipped frame recurs as a visual motif across each episode, signifying the distorted perspective of a man in a free fall and signalling the perspective shift to come.
What becomes clear is Toby isn’t the sensitive, put-upon, blameless patsy he paints himself as. Nor is Rachel the entirely guilty party he antagonizes her as. When you hear only one side of a divorce story, chances are the perspective is blinkered by self-serving agenda. In truth, Toby is a jittery, entitled, insecure doctor whose feelings of emasculation curdled into bitterness — a role tailor-made for Jesse Eisenberg if there ever was one. Rachel is a high-flying theatre agent with a razor-sharp blonde bob who started from humble beginnings and worked her way to the top — a role tailor-made for Claire Danes if there ever was one. After being passed over for a promotion, Rachel built her own talent agency. Toby took on the day-to-day parenting duties so she could earn the big bucks.
That is until Rachel’s ambition and Toby’s lack thereof became an irreconcilable difference which he believed granted him the mantle of the aggrieved party in a blatant case of rerouted victimhood. At one point in the series, a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint that sits on his nightstand attests to the masculine neuroses that ail him. Alexander Portnoy, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s novel, was Jewish, horny, and full of virile rage — not unlike Toby. Not to mention Toby being a liver doctor could be seen as a sly nod to a controversial scene from the 1969 book.
Where Roth employed the male-skewed perspective of his fictive alter-ego to make sense of his fraught marriage in My Life as a Man, Brodesser-Akner presents a feminist rebuttal of sorts with a more balanced autopsy report of Toby and Rachel’s marriage. Key to the balance is her own fictive alter-ego Libby, once magazine writer, now suburban mom who acts as an intermediary. Being Toby’s college friend, she starts off as a sounding board. Hearing about his grievances takes her mind off her own strained marriage. She naturally takes Toby’s side until she is made to relearn the old reporting adage: there are always two sides to every story. Libby’s inner monologue presents an outsider’s perspective. Expressed via Lizzy Caplan’s characterful voice-over in the series, it refreshes, even enriches, the text. Caplan delivers her lines with a great sense of timing, well-attuned with the ironies of the text, in a rare instance of a voice-over not having a grating effect.
Through flashbacks, the series take us on a non-linear tour of Toby and Rachel’s marriage from beginning to end. For six episodes, we are centred in Toby’s one-sided point of view with Rachel MIA. We watch as Toby rants about his ex-wife’s shortcomings to his friends, takes time off from work for a weekend at the Hamptons to assuage his children’s fear of abandonment, and scrambles to make himself available to the parade of women his renewed bachelor status seems to attract each time he logs into dating apps. It takes till the seventh episode for Libby to realise she doesn’t have the whole story. When we finally hear Rachel’s side, we feel the offset that was sorely missing from the narrative. The episode, titled “Me-Time”, reveals the trauma from her first pregnancy, itemises the arguments that created friction in their marriage, and accounts for her three-week absence.
The reversal of perspective reorients the narrative fed to us so far quite dramatically. We see Rachel in a new light. Orphaned as a child, Rachel grew up with an emotionally detached grandmother. It’s why she aches for secure relationships that make her feel safe, seen and stable. She was Jewish but enrolled in a Catholic school. It’s why she aches to fit in. She didn’t come from money like most of her classmates. It’s why she obsesses over outward signs of prosperity. As Libby describes in the series, “She understood that it wasn’t her lack of money and proximity that made her an outsider. It was that her lack of proximity and money created an outsider’s desperation in her.”
Shortcomings that Toby proclaimed to be unconscionable appear less so. When she gets him a million-dollar job offer at Big Pharma, she isn’t forcing him into any sort of moral compromise but simply cashing in on a favour. When we hear about the doctor on call breaking her water without consent the first time through Toby’s POV but watch it happen again through her eyes the second time, the trauma feels all the more devastating and her reinforced commitment to work all the more understandable. When she falls off the face of the earth for three weeks, she wasn’t abandoning her children. She suffered a nervous breakdown and lost track of time. Through camerawork and editing, the show emulates the spatio-temporal disorienation of a woman ordering takeout after takeout of beef lo mein and sinking deeper and deeper into a downward spiral of depression. This overwhelming sense of despair manifests in full force in Danes’ quivering bottom lip, facial contortions and devastating wails. Danes really has the hardest working cry-face in Hollywood.
As in the novel, the shift however does arrive a little too late and upsets the parity. How Rachel is perceived by Toby speaks to the askew perspective of male-centric narratives and where women fit into it. “The only way to get someone to listen to a woman (is) to tell her story through a man”, wrote Brodesser-Akner. “Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you.” But the success of the novel should have made a case for an equal, if not greater, emphasis on Rachel’s perspective as Toby’s. More so because spending time with Toby becomes a chore as opposed to doing the same with Rachel. She is just a lot more fascinating character. Yet, her story gets short shrift.
Letting writers adapt their own novels might mitigate concerns over fidelity and doing justice to source material. But keeping the original voice at arm’s length and bringing in another creative voice can lead to stronger visual choices and a richer perspective that deepen our understanding of the source material. For what is an adaptation if not a codification of a person’s reading of a story?
Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore
The views expressed are personal
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